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When an inmate dies in suspicious circumstances, who is to blame?

On Behalf of | Sep 15, 2021 | Social Justice |

Johnny Autry Jr., 44, died at Pamlico Correctional Institution in January under suspicious circumstances. In a report, a pathologist at East Carolina University said it was a methamphetamine overdose. His family isn’t so sure.

True, Johnny was at Pamlico after a drug conviction. And, the prison said that he was seen “smoking something” before the incident that cost him his life. But, when his family viewed his body before his funeral, Johnny had two black eyes, facial bruises and cuts on his face and the top of his head – injuries that weren’t mentioned in the pathologist’s report.

Was he beaten before his death?

Unfortunately, it may be almost impossible to know, despite the photos the family took of his body. When Johnny presented himself to prison staff, allegedly after being seen smoking something, other inmates say he was taken to the “intake room” – a room with no surveillance cameras.

Less than an hour passed before the prison called a Code 4, which inmates told the family is sounded when prisoners assault each other. The other prisoners never saw Johnny again, although a prison janitor was allegedly called in to clean up blood in the intake room, according to a prisoner who spoke to Johnny’s father. The mess was allegedly cleaned up before the State Bureau of Investigations arrived.

“Overdose doesn’t cause your body to be bruised like Johnny’s,” pointed out Johnny’s brother Wes in a letter to the Charlotte Observer.

A prison spokesperson declined to say how Johnny got the cuts and bruises or how he might have gotten hold of methamphetamine. He also declined to release any surveillance video from the day of Johnny’s death, citing an ongoing SBI investigation, and the SBI won’t release any files. The Department of Health and Human Services said there was no one available for the Observer to talk to about the autopsy.

What the prison did say is that Johnny came to them in a “paranoid state” and that they were unable to calm him down before medical distress set in and he became unresponsive. Staff performed CPR and called 911. Paramedics were unable to revive Johnny.

There was no medical staff on duty at Pamlico on the night that Johnny died. Pamlico is a medium-security facility housing approximately 560 people.

Where did the drugs come from?

Johnny’s family wants to know where the alleged methamphetamine came from. In 2017, the Charlotte Observer investigated the issue and found that drugs and contraband cellphones are widely available in North Carolina prisons – even in maximum security facilities. Most of the contraband was being smuggled in by staff members.

Prisons routinely search everyone who enters the facility, including staff. They use metal detectors, body scanners and pat-down searches. They’ve added fencing and nets to prevent contraband from being thrown in. Yet the problem persists. Recently, a former manager at Pasquotank Correctional Institution was caught smuggling marijuana into the facility.

Was there fault in Johnny’s death?

It’s somewhat alarming that the staff at Pamlico allegedly saw Johnny “smoking something” but took no action until he presented himself in a paranoid state.

It’s more alarming that a 560-bed correctional institution doesn’t have round-the-clock medical staff. If Johnny’s death was indeed caused by an overdose, it serves as a clear example of why it isn’t sufficient to call in an ambulance. Whatever happened, too much time had passed for the paramedics to help. The same could happen in the event of a heart attack, stroke or other sudden medical problem.

If the staff saw Johnny smoking something and took no action, it may be that the staff was negligent. If the facility didn’t have sufficient medical services, the facility may have been negligent.

But Johnny’s family is overcome with worry that they’re not getting the whole story.

“Why was my son in the intake room where there were no cameras,” asked Johnny’s father. “I’m still wondering if he was beat down.”

Johnny had two daughters in their early 20s. After his release, he was planning to move to Charlotte to join his fiancée.

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